My header photograph is a cropped version of one of a series taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 5th, 1863. Beginning in the early afternoon of Independence Day, the day after the battle at last came to an end, a steady rain drenched the fields. A long wagon train-- a "vast procession of misery"-- some seventeen miles long and carrying 8,00 Confederate wounded, made its exodus from that crossroads town in Pennsylvania. In their wake came the photographers--Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, and James F. Gibson--and for the next several days they composed their images of the dead.
Gettysburg was not the first American battlefield to be covered by cameramen. In October of 1862 a series of photographs were exhibited in a New York gallery owned by Mathew Brady. "The Dead of Antietam" was a unprecedented success. The photographs had an uncanny ability to "bring home" the war. As a result of confronting these images of bodies left on the field of battle, northern citizens could finally get a glimpse of what so many of them had been reading about: the horrors of warfare. A New York Times reporter wrote: If Brady "has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it."
In his accompanying commentary to O'Sullivan's photograph in Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Gardner writes:
Slowly, over the misty fields of Gettysburg--as all reluctant to expose their ghastly horrors to the light--came the sunless morn, after the retreat by Lee's broken army. Through the shadowy vapors, it was, indeed, a "harvest of death" that was presented; hundreds and thousands of torn Union and rebel soldiers--although many of the former were already interred--strewed the now quiet fighting ground, soaked by the rain, which for two days had drenched the country with its fitful showers.
In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust has said that the "work of death" was the most fundamental and demanding undertaking of the American Civil War. "Americans North and South would be compelled to confront--and resist--the war's assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced."
Drew suggests that this struggle for meaning in the face of the mass slaughter of modern warfare that the Civil War instigated is an ongoing process: "We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists."
To a great extent, this blog is intended to be an ongoing investigation of that struggle for understanding and meaning.